Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking


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Jessica Mitford was a member of one of England’s most legendary families (among her sisters were the novelist Nancy Mitford and the current Duchess of Devonshire) and one of the great muckraking journalists of modern times. Leaving England for America, she pursued a career as an investigative reporter and unrepentant gadfly, publicizing not only the misdeeds of, most famously, the funeral business (The American Way of Death, a bestseller) and the prison business (Kind and Usual Punishment), but also of writing schools and weight-loss programs. Mitford’s diligence, unfailing skepticism, and acid pen made her one of the great chroniclers of the mischief people get up to in the pursuit of profit and the name of good. Poison Penmanship collects seventeen of Mitford’s finest pieces—about everything from crummy spas to network-TV censorship—and fills them out with the story of how she got the scoop and, no less fascinating, how the story developed after publication. The book is a delight to read: few journalists have ever been as funny as Mitford, or as gifted at getting around in those dark, cobwebbed corners where modern America fashions its shiny promises. It’s also an unequaled and necessary manual of the fine art of investigative reporting.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590173558
Publisher: New York Review Books
Publication date: 09/07/2010
Series: NYRB Classics Series
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 641,628
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jessica Mitford (1917–1996) was the daughter of Lord and Lady Redesdale, and she and her five sisters and one brother grew up in isolation on their parents’ Cotswold estate. Rebelling against her family’s hidebound conservatism, Mitford became an outspoken socialist and, with her second cousin and husband-to-be Esmond Romilly, ran away to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was killed in World War II, and Mitford moved to America, where she married the lawyer and political activist Robert Treuhaft. A brilliant muckraking journalist, Mitford was the author of, among other works, a memoir of her youth, Hons and Rebels (also published as an NYRB Classic); a study of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death; and Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business. She died at the age of seventy-eight while working on a follow-up to The American Way of Death, for which, with characteristic humor, she proposed the title “Death Warmed Over.” 

Jane Smiley, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is the author of many novels and other works. In 2010 she published Private Life, a novel; A Good Horse, a book for young adults; and The Man Who Invented the Computer, the first volume of the Sloane American Inventors series.

Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction 3

Trial by Headline 28

Comment 40

St. Peter, Don't You Call Me 43

Comment 50

Proceed with Caution 53

Comment 57

You-All and Non-You-All 60

Comment 76

Americans Don't Want Fancy Funerals 79

My Way of Life Since The American Way of Death 89

"Something to Offend Everyone" 93

Comment On Three Funeral Pieces 103

Don't Call It Syphilis 108

Comment 124

Maine Chance Diary 128

Comment 145

Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers 148

Comment 170

A Talk with George Jackson 182

Comment 190

My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor 192

Comment 214

The Best of Frenemies 217

Comment 220

Checks and Balances at the Sign of the Dove 222

The Dove Strikes Back 225

Comment On Two "Dove" Pieces 230

Waiting for O'Hara 234

Comment 244

Egyptomania 246

Comment 271

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Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
NewsieQ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jessica Mitford (1917-1996) was born in England, but made her mark as a modern-day muckraker in America. Poison Penmanship is a delightful anthology of some of her essays. She was relentless in pursuit of wrong-doers, a self-educated woman who never really attended school, and the author of The American Way of Death (1963). That is the book she is best known for, but her shorter-form works are equally intriguing. That book revolutionized the funeral industry and made her a pariah with morticians. In Poison Penmanship (reprinted 2010), Ms. Mitford relates her encounters with the Famous Writers¿ school, the American south, a spa/fat farm, her stint teaching at San Jose State University (and much, much more). Each essay is followed by her commentary. I enjoyed every one of the essays, with the exception of the last, on Egyptology, which I began in earnest but finished by skimming. In her comments, she admits it is an article she didn¿t have her heart in, and includes it as ¿one that got away.¿ Maybe that what I caught wind of. Although I had heard the name Jessica Mitford, I didn¿t know anything about her. That will soon be remedied when I receive a copy of a well-reviewed 2010 biography, Irrepressible by Leslie Brody. It seems she comes from a family of oddballs and eccentrics, including her sisters -- who may define both categories.